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This claim comes from a work of fiction but it is often repeated as true by fiscally conservative individuals who respect the author. In Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, a character named Francisco gives a speech on the nature of money. Francisco says (emphasis mine),

"If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose–because it contains all the others–the fact that they were the people who created the phrase ‘to make money.’ No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity–to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted or obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created."

Now, a strict reading of this is demonstrably false, as this page has several instances of a verb similar to 'to make' being used in relation to money. One is cited by the OED and reads as follows,

1472 R. CALLE in Paston Lett. (1976) II. 356, I truste be Ester to make of money..at the leeste l marke

The issue with this strict of an interpretation though, is that Rand wasn't really talking about the word, but rather the way it was used. It's possible to use the verb 'to make' in relation to money in several ways. For instance,

  1. Accumulating a quantity of wealth (from a static or dynamic pool of wealth).
  2. Printing or coining it.
  3. Increasing the amount of wealth in the world through productive work.

I'm certain mints and counterfeiters have used the second sense for ages and I don't know how common the first sense is.

I read Rand's claim as stating Americans were the first people to use 'to make money' in the third sense. Is this historically accurate? I'm skeptical because I think the fact that wealth is produced is obvious and I doubt previous nations would have held such a drastically different view.


Note: I don't want this to turn into an argument about the merits of Objectivism. It's controversial, but your opinion on it (in favor or against) is not relevant in the context of investigating this claim.

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    I'm not sure if this is the right SE for the question. On the one hand, I'm skeptical of a notable claim; on the other hand, this would be topical for english.SE and history.SE too. I tend to think it goes on skeptics (duh, I posted it here), but I'm fine with migration if the community disagrees with me. – William Grobman Sep 13 '12 at 21:13
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    How do we distinguish between (1) and (3)? I'd argue that when most people say "making money", they mean "accumulating money", as in "I hate my soul-crushing job, but at least I'm making money". – Brendan Long Sep 13 '12 at 23:03
  • @BrendanLong I think you're likely right about what people mean. One way to distinguish this is to ask if people view wealth as a static or dynamic quantity and if industry and trade produce or distribute wealth. But I doubt there is detailed enough data on the subject to make a determination. – William Grobman Sep 14 '12 at 16:20
  • Do you have any references that "it is often repeated as true by fiscally conservative individuals who respect the author"? Because absent that (and "as true" doesn't mean "simply as a quote from Rand"), I fail to see how it's a notable claim, given that it's sourced in a work of fiction. – user5341 Dec 28 '13 at 23:26
  • @DVK I've seen it on news groups, fora, and heard in many offline discussions. That said, I'm fine closing it since it's probably a better fit for history or English stackexchange. – William Grobman Dec 30 '13 at 23:13
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Probably not. The idea, if not the exact phrase, goes back at least to the Roman empire.

According to http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/24356.html and http://www.quotes.net/quote/34375 Quintus Horatius Flaccus, the Roman poet, wrote:

Make money, money by fair means if you can, if not, by any means make money.

The "moral sentiments" of making money also seem fairly summarized by this advice.

  • That's a though one. I'd argue that's the first case, as making money "unfairly" doesn't make sense from a production standpoint; much more sense as accumulation. I think this is good evidence that Rand's wrong about what Americans mean though; the English phrase probably comes from this. – William Grobman Sep 13 '12 at 23:21
  • "Gains from trade" is the money made from a kind of productive work, trade, that fits in your classification (3). Early trade involved ships or caravans, requiring both capital and labor, acceptance of various risks, and significant travel time. The Romans had an extensive system of trade, as did earlier civilizations -- and must have had citizens who understood trade as creating a better situation for each trader.... as opposed to conquest or mere hoarding. – Paul Sep 13 '12 at 23:54
  • I agree with your comment and sentiment, but I don't see anything in the quote about trade. I'll check your link. – William Grobman Sep 14 '12 at 0:01
  • William, my concern is not that the quote cited relates to trade, but that Rand's character must more or less argue that Americans invented trade or first recognized that voluntary trade must create wealth since both parties are better off. I would be highly skeptical. – Paul Sep 14 '12 at 0:04
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    This is quickly turning into an off topic discussion into the minutiae if the semantics of the phrase. It is obvious that the phrase was used well befor the US (or even English). @WilliamGrobman, you will have to live without discussing what the Romans really meant. It is not answerable by fact. – Sklivvz Sep 14 '12 at 5:33

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